When icicles hang by the wall, And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
Okay, here we go. The poem opens with a set up. "When icicles hang by the wall," and some dude named Dick (who is a shepherd) "blows his nail"… um, something else happens.
Hmm. What happens? We don't know yet, but we'll go ahead and guess that at some point the speaker will tell us. Hopefully.
At least we know that this poem is called "Winter," so it's fitting that the poem opens with some images of winter: hanging icicles and a guy blowing his nail.
Wait, what does he mean Dick shepherd blows his nail? And who is Dick the shepherd anyway?
Well, to blow one's nail means exactly that: to blow on one's nail. It's like blowing on your hands when you're freezing, like this, only blowing on your fingernail instead. Hey, don't ask us. Dick is the one doing it.
And as for our pal? Well, so far it seems that he's nobody in particular. It's just like saying "Jo Schmo" or "John Doe." It's just a generic name for some imaginary shepherd (someone who herds sheep).
After this first, quick look, it looks like the meter of this poem is going to be iambic tetrameter, which means there will be four iambs ("tetra-" means four) instead of five (as in the more common iambic pentameter). What in the Wide World of Sports are we talking about? Don't stress it. Just head over to "Form and Meter" for a longer discussion, but be sure to come right back here.
And if you don't feel like doing that just yet, stick with us as we continue our journey into "Winter."
And Tom bears logs into the hall, And milk comes frozen home in pail; When blood is nipp'd, and ways be foul,
Well, we still don't find out what happens. All we get in these next three lines are more parts to the "when" from the first line and a ton of something we call in the poetry biz anaphora (repetition of similar phrasing or sentence structure—"Tom bears" and "milk comes"; "When icicles hang" and "When blood is nipp'd").
When Tom (another generic name) "bears" (brings) logs into the hall, and when milk that's being carried home in a bucket freezes, and when blood is "nipp'd" (chilled) and "ways be foul"… again, something happens.
Okay, we've got a few things to clear up here. First, Tom is probably carrying logs for a fire in the fireplace that is in the hall.
It's winter, so fire is necessary for warmth.
Keep in mind that this poem was written way back in the day (1597-ish), so there were no heaters, only actual fires, with logs, like this.
As for milk being frozen—again, it's winter. When whoever milks the cow brings the pail of milk home, the freezing cold weather, well, freezes it. Sheesh, that's a bummer. We've tried to freeze milk (to make yummy milk pops), and it ain't easy.
As for blood being nipped, perhaps you've heard the phrase "it's a bit nippy out." "Nipp'd" and "nippy" just mean cold, or sometimes even "frozen."
Finally, "ways" just means roads, or paths; they are "foul" because the terrible winter weather makes them icy, muddy, and overall a huge pain to walk or ride along.
Well, so far, this is a pretty bleak description of winter. One is so cold that he needs to heat his fingernails, another is bringing wood for a fire, the milk is frozen, blood is freezing cold, the roads are bad, and to top it off there are icicles hanging down.
Winter is definitely not a kind season. Sure, the icicles are pretty neat, but muddy roads and frozen milk? Yeah, forget that.
But don't forget this: that long O sound in "frozen" and "home" is an example of cool literary figure called both assonance, as well as internal rhyme. Keep your eyes, and ears, open to further examples of this little guy in the rest of the poem.
Then nightly sings the staring owl, "Tu-whit, to-who!"—
Finally, finally, finally we find out what happens when Dick heats his fingers, Tom hauls some logs, the milk comes home as one giant ice cube, and—well, you get the idea.
The staring owl "nightly sings" a song that goes "Tu-whit, to-who." (Note the alliteration in the song. There's more about this poem's sound in "Sound Check.") In other words, some owl stares at things every night ("nightly") when it's winter time and does his best The Voice audition.
Wait, so that's it? Really? An owl sings a song that goes "Tu-whit, to who!"? We were kind of hoping for something a little more interesting but we guess we'll settle.
But what is the significance of the owl here? Well, first off, owls are really awesome birds (seriously). Secondly, though, it's fitting that, during such a cold, miserable time, a bird of prey should be out and about. What better time for an apex predator to prey on little mice and bunnies than in the dead of winter?
Finally, consider this: obviously, winter is making life really hard for people. They need fires, the roads they want to travel are no good, etc.
The same is not true for the owl, though. He's hanging out and singing. (Owls have lots of feathers that keep him pretty warm so don't worry; he's not out there freezing.)
The point is, humans and animals are different, or rather the seasons affect them differently. This seems like a point that we may want to hold on to as we trudge forward through the poem.
A merry note, While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
At the end of the stanza, the speaker offers a comment about the owl's song—and tells us something else.
He calls the owl's "Tu-whit Tu-who" a "merry note," and says the owl sings this song while "greasy Joan doth keel the pot."
Okay, a couple of things about ol' greasy Joan. (This was the name we gave our cafeteria lady in junior high, but we digress.)
First, like Dick the shepherd and Tom, this is most likely just some generic rural name. The "greasy" part may refer to the fact that she's clearly in the kitchen.
However, our sources tell us that back in the day "greasy Joan" was a nickname for a prostitute. We're not so sure that this reference is what's intended here, but we should just keep that in mind.
Meanwhile, what's Joan up to? She's keeling the pot, which means she's stirring it ("to keel" once meant "to stir").
Ah, so there is life after all. Even though the milk is frozen and the roads are bad, it is still possible to keep things cozy. Joan is cooking up a storm, and Tom is feeding the fire while an owl sings outside.
Just a minute—speaking of that owl, why does the speaker call his song a "merry note"? Is his song supposed to be one of the pretty things about winter, you know, part of that "winter wonderland" they always sing about in the Christmas songs?
Perhaps. Perhaps, too, this is meant to be ironic. Owls are cute and all, but you wouldn't say that if you were a mouse would you? Eh, probably not.
If you've been keeping track, you may have noticed that this poem rhymes. We'll talk a little more about this over in "Form and Meter," but for now we'll just hit you with the rhyme scheme: ABABCCDEF, where each letter represents that line's end rhyme sound. So, line 1 rhymes with line 2, line 2 with line 4, and so on.
We've got one more stanza of "Winter" to go, so let's get to it and see what else Bill Shakes has in store. (P.S. "Bill Shakes" is just our clever nickname for William Shakespeare. Yeah, we thought you'd like it.)